Face To Face With Homelessness in New Orleans

Photo by Alvin Decena GCASH 09561687117 on Pexels.com

I have been in New Orleans for the past nine days—first on vacation with my family, and now staying on solo for the NPM (National Association of Pastoral Musicians) conference, where I’m presenting this week.

We have so enjoyed our time here—from swamp tours to beignets to fabulous jazz, it was a great trip with the kids. But I was not prepared for the sheer scope of the face of Jesus in the homeless population that I would encounter here.

The presence of people suffering homelessness has been a cattle prod to my conscience for twenty years. I remember going to work at the church and feeling the hypocrisy of driving past the people holding signs as if they weren’t even there—when I was headed to work at a CHURCH. Eventually I started keeping a stash of protein and Nutri Grain bars in the vehicles to pass out. It feels insufficient. But it’s better than refusing to make eye contact at all.

I always think about Lazarus lying at the rich man’s gate, begging for scraps and being ignored. That rich guy probably wasn’t evil. Probably, he just was uncomfortable, didn’t know how to help, and so he didn’t make eye contact.

I also think about Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate, and the beggar there who couldn’t walk. That story stands out to me because it says he asked for alms, and then Peter responded by saying, “Look at me.” Then the Bible says: He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them.

The eye contact raises expectations in the person on the receiving end of this equation—and that’s why we don’t do it. That’s why we ignore them. Eye contact compels us to step in in some way. But if we can’t even look in the eyes of Jesus in the person suffering homelessness, then… Well, it says something about our commitment to the faith. Something we probably don’t want to know about ourselves.

So I have made a real effort to make eye contact —to SEE the people who stand at highway intersections back home. After twenty years, I know many faces and some things about them, both positive and negative.

But I was completely and totally unprepared for the magnitude of the homeless population in New Orleans.

Camps, apparently long-term, beneath the interstates (in the shade—very important). Right out in the open. A man sprawled on the sidewalk sleeping on Canal Street, a handful of steps from restaurants that would cost my family $150 to eat there. Another man using an umbrella to block the sun as he sleeps against a lovely old wrought-iron fence. A woman, her face a study in shame and hopelessness, sitting on a three-hundred-year-old stoop with a sign that says, “First time homeless.” I have seen literally hundreds of homeless people in the week I have been here.

Hundreds of the face of Jesus, looking at me.

The first day, the first HOUR of the first day, I should say, I pulled singles out of my wallet, just to do SOMETHING, knowing perfectly well that if we emptied our wallets, it would only take care of a dozen of these people for a day, maybe two. And yet–and yet! We are on vacation, spending money on ourselves!

Eventually, I had to resort to the very thing I despise: walking by without acknowledging. Food is expensive here, even for me. Do I go buy six orders of beignets and hand them out? Relatively cheap, but totally useless calories. Do I spend a hundred dollars buying $15 burgers and onion rings from the place next to my hotel, and hand those out?

I wish I could offer what Peter and John did in that moment by the Beautiful Gate. They were able to heal that man, give him back the ability to walk—the thing that kept him in poverty, unable to help himself.

What this experience makes so clear to me is that the problem of homelessness is one of the many that are a systemic problem, and so the solution also must be. That does not excuse me from my responsibility to see and to be made uncomfortable and to help in whatever small way I can. (Trail mix bars from the CVS two blocks down?) But it also reminds me that I have to work for justice in the larger world, because the problem isn’t mine to solve alone—it is OUR problem.

Right Here… Even Now

I am praying Advent this year with Cameron Bellm’s “Advent with St. Oscar Romero,” and the reality of my life is that my first day, I was looking at last year’s edition instead of this year’s. The takeaway of the day was:: if God was present in all the upheaval and injustice taking place in El Salvador in 1977, when Romero wrote the homily I was praying with, then that applies today, too. God is present. Even in this. The good, yes, but also the bad.

Given the reality of pandemic, persistent injustice, fake news, and the constant apocalyptic thinking that characterizes both sides of the political spectrum these days, this seems like a particularly beautiful thought for this Advent.

All Will Be Well…..?

On days when I ride out to the Missouri River, I often take the book The Ignatian Adventure (Kevin O’Brien, S.J.) to guide reflection and prayer. Yesterday, the Scripture verse was Jesus asking, “What are you looking for?”

Instantly, I thought: “Peace.”

Then I thought: “No, it can’t be that easy.”

As previously established on this blog, my Enneagram personality type is #1, The Crusader. I am hyper-aware of everything in the world that is NOT AS IT SHOULD BE, and I feel if I do not expand my last drop of energy attempting to fix it, I am derelict in my duty. I am very hard on others, but I’m harder on myself. Integrity tops the list of traits I value most.

None of this facilitates a peaceful spirit.

Further complicating the acquisition of a peaceful spirit is the sheer intensity of family life in a time of division and pandemic. Peace, for me, is achieved in solitude and quiet. These days, solitude is hard to come by. I walk around my house all day turning off things people turned on, closing doors they opened, yelling at them to put away things they got out and left (food, dishes, dirty socks, electronics, you name it), and to quit annoying each other out of sheer boredom… and (let’s call a spade a spade) boy mischief.

And all of you who are out there feeling smug right now about “well, if you’d just teach them,” just remember how resistant your own kids are/were to the lessons you tried to teach. And imagine being stuck in a house for seven-plus months trying to correct such patterns with people whose mental health is as precarious as your own, during one of the most blisteringly, ugly, divisive times our country has ever experienced.

So yes. When Jesus asks, “What are you looking for in following me?” the honest answer is: “peace.” The peace that comes from assurance that everything is going to be okay, and not just someday on the far side of death, but here, in this world. This beautiful, fragile, fractured world given to us as practice for Heaven.

I love this quote from Julian of Norwich. It is so comforting–except when people use the quote to suggest that we shouldn’t be worrying about solving real world problems because the only thing that matters is what comes later. As if you’re ever going to be allowed INTO the world beyond without working for its realization on this side of the great divide.

And yet, also, I have been slowly waking to a new insight, these past weeks. Sometimes situations are so messed up, there IS no human solution. The division in America, for instance. No matter who wins this election, the problem at the foundation isn’t going away. We don’t have a solution for the ugliness and bitterness and extremism of our politics. We’ve chained ourselves to them.

There must be away out—a way toward unity and cooperation—but I can’t see it, and I don’t have much faith that anyone else can, either.

So my prayers, of late, have been asking God to show us the path we can’t find on our own. And recognizing that the path TO that path may be so steep, tick-and-poison-ivy-infested, and rugged, we may just have to take it on total faith that we’re heading the right direction at all. That regardless of what I can see or comprehend–no matter what it looks like right now–all will, eventually, be well.

Human Dignity Depending On Our Own Convenience. (Ouch.)

The problem with being the center of world culture is that we tend to be really myopic–so focused on ourselves, we tune out the rest of the world. Every time I’m out and about at 2p.m., I butt up against this reality in myself. While I really enjoy listening to NPR news programs, to dig deeper into big questions, it’s excruciating to listen to the BBC News Hour. Unless, of course, they’re talking about the USA.

Three quarters of what is talked about on that program is talking about situations that are so off my radar, I can’t summon any desire to pay attention.

This is what comes to mind while reading today’s section of Fratelli Tutti (#22-28). Pope Francis points out in reality, all human rights are NOT given equal time. Some of us live in opulence and others’ rights are totally discarded. We pay lip service to women having equal dignity to men, but reality paints a different picture. Human trafficking, organ harvesting, etc. further illustrate the divide.

Where he really hits his stride, though, is in #25, where he skewers the habit of defending or dismissing assaults on human dignity, “depending on how convenient it proves.”

This feels very, very familiar. The difference in how we perceive the dignity of the unborn versus that of the refugee fleeing Central America (with or without going through “proper channels”) springs instantly to mind. If it doesn’t cost ME anything, of course I’m going to uphold human dignity. But if it has the potential, however remote, to inconvenience ME, well, then I can find all kinds of reasons why it’s not my problem, it’s theirs.

Next, he points out the tendency to build walls, both figurative and literal, separating humanity into “us” and “them.” It’s so beautiful, it’s nearly poetry. Just go read #27. And he rounds out this section by pointing out that the disenfranchisement caused by these sinful behaviors is precisely what leads to “mafias,” which I would suggest is a blanket term that includes terrorism.

So many Christian teachings have an incredibly practical element. Yes, we should treat each other as “brothers” (in the non-gender-specific meaning of the word) just because that’s God’s will. But the reality is that the failure to follow that teaching has all kinds of real-world ripple effects.

The way those ripple effects bang into each other and intensify is what made me start Intentional Catholic in the first place. Because I think an awful lot of us spend our lives totally unaware of them. That certainly was true of me until the arrival of my daughter set me on a small boat in the middle of all those ripples, and I had no choice but to recognize them because of the bumpiness of the ride.

Until then, I had compartmentalized life, thinking, “Sure, THESE issues are connected to my faith, but all THESE have nothing to do with it.” I was totally wrong. All issues are connected to faith.

Sometimes It’s Not Talking About Us. And Sometimes It Is.

“Trample my courts no more!
To bring offerings is useless;
incense is an abomination to me.” (Is. 10:13)

Isaiah really didn’t mess around, did he? Most of the time we focus in on the feel-good prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.

But in yesterday’s first reading, Isaiah says, “Guys, seriously. God’s not interested in what you’re bringing to the altar. You’re trying to substitute ritual for meaningful action in your real life. Your worship is useless. What gives worship meaning is what you do outside these walls, and you’re not doing it.”

This reminded me powerfully of a lengthy reflection I read a few weeks ago. The context is race, but the part that struck me most profoundly was about the way we interpret various passages in Scripture. When we hear passages like today’s, we shake our heads at those poor blind, hard-hearted Israelites. But when the readings of comfort come, we think they’re meant for us.

Today I just want to share a couple of paragraphs from that article, which was an uncomfortable but eye-opening read. In fact, the article is one of many in a magazine issue devoted to forgiveness; the whole issue this came from is on my to-read list. I encourage you to click through.

Though there is a place for the individual in theology, white theology, in profound syncretism with American culture, has distorted the Bible to be solely about individual redemption. So it is blind to the reality that when Scripture says, “I know the plans I have for you”, the “you” is plural and addressed to an entire community of people that has been displaced and are in exile. All Scripture has been reduced to individual interactions between God and a person, even when they are actually between God and a community, or Jesus and a group of people. As a result, white theology defines racism as hateful thoughts and deeds by an individual, but cannot comprehend communal, systemic, or institutionalized sin, because it has erased all examples of that framework from Scripture.

Secondly, white Christianity suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. As each individual reads Scripture, they see themselves as the princess in every story. They are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. They are Peter, but never Judas. They are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisees. They are the Jews escaping slavery, never Egypt. For citizens of the most powerful country in the world, who enslaved both Native and Black people, to see itself as Israel and not Egypt when studying Scripture is a perfect example of Disney princess theology. And it means that as people in power, they have no lens for locating themselves rightly in Scripture or society — and it has made them blind and utterly ill-equipped to engage issues of power and injustice. It is some very weak Bible work.

Erna Kim Hackett, “Why I Stopped Talking About Racial Reconciliation and Started Talking About White Supremacy”

COVID-19: In Search of A Balanced Perspective

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

There are basically two kinds of posts filling up my Facebook feed right now. I’m sure it’s the same for you.

On the one hand, there are the conspiracy theories and memes filled with outrage over having to mask or social distance or really, having to endure limits and inconvenience of any kind. The we-should-just-open-up-and-get-herd-immunity posts. The the-numbers-are-always-changing-and-that’s-a-sign-that-it’s-all-baloney posts. Yesterday I saw a meme that bemoaned ruining our economy for a disease with a death rate of only .1%. (FYI: I went to the CDC and did the math, because I’ve been wrong before. The death rate is 6%.)

On the other hand, there are strident posts that imply that it’s universally too soon to open up, that everyone should stay in lockdown, that no church anywhere under any circumstances should sing, because it’s dangerous. Posts that pass judgment on others’ choices, without knowing the circumstances and in some cases, exaggerating the level of the violations.

Those who share the first type of post are almost exclusively from rural areas where the case load has been low. Those who share the second are almost exclusively urban dwellers living with ongoing trauma caused by the exploding body counts in their vicinities.

The thing is, both these points of view contain nuggets of truth. Where I live, it makes no sense to deny assembly singing; we’ve only had one death and a hundred cases since the whole thing began. That would be a precaution that causes unnecessary damage to communities without any benefit.

On the other hand, there *is* real mental health suffering going on because of the shutdowns; I’ve thought since day one that we could have a whole generation in need of counseling after this is over. I have four children. I did counseling myself for the first time in my life during this pandemic. Parenting during this is a nightmare for a person who suffers scrupulousness and, by extension, anxiety. What if I’m the one who ends up passing the disease to dozens of others and causes the deaths of hundreds because I’m too cavalier? What if the hospitals get overrun and my developmentally disabled daughter is the one who has to be denied a ventilator?

But because I’m so sensitized to my children’s mental health, to my own anxieties, and to the high stakes for my own family, I’m really cognizant of the need for balance.

In some places (like where I am), the damage being done by shutdown might, in fact, be worse than the damage avoided.

But maybe not. Because maybe shutting down prevented us from becoming a hot spot. Prevented us from the unbelievable anguish of burying our loved ones without being able to say goodbye or gather to remember them and send them off to Heaven.

The trouble is, we don’t know. We won’t know until it’s over and all the data is in—and maybe not even then. In real time, the situation is always in motion; the numbers change because new information comes to light, not because of some great conspiracy.

There *are* places where the fears are totally justified. As we, out here in the low-caseload areas, start reopening, it’s tempting to assume that what is true here is true everywhere. And then, to judge others for being more cautious. And our lack of sympathy causes people in areas where the danger is real to react more strongly—which makes us lash out more strongly still—which makes them angry…

It’s American tribalism on full display, in all its ugly, unchristian glory.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

The beautiful thing about being human is that we are capable—if we will choose to exercise the ability—of adapting our understanding based on new information. But when the stakes are so high, our Christian responsibility to be cautious about what information we choose to partake of is more crucial than ever.

I propose that as Christians, our responsibility—our DUTY, in fact—is to check the bias of EVERY source BEFORE we click through, and to refuse to click through to any source that leans strongly right or left. Moderately left, moderately right, these sources are balanced enough that we can properly form our consciences. Clicking through to extreme sources only encourages greater extremism. If we want our media to behave with integrity, we have to quit rewarding them for misbehaving. If we want integrity in our news reporting, we have to demand it by not supporting those who violate our trust.

Frankly, on this Memorial Day, committing to greater integrity in our information consumption seems like a good way to honor those who gave their lives to protect this country. Don’t you think?

There Is A Purpose

Posting here has become sort of irregular, but I doubt that comes as much of a surprise. We’re all stumbling along through this new reality, experiencing Holy Week and sharing in the passion of Jesus with a depth of experience that gives it new meaning, even while we lack the emotional bandwidth to fully unpack it as it unfolds.

It seems everyone is passing around things to keep us busy and make the time pass in this brave new world, but I don’t need anything else to do! Some structure, a break in the unceasing grind of togetherness? Yes. But not more to do. I’m supervising four kids’ schoolwork now, and I’ve learned that if I take the time to do something of my own, something for the kids is going to be sacrificed. Hence: irregular posting at Intentional Catholic.

Yesterday I managed to do a quick web search for words of comfort from the saints, and this one popped out immediately. It speaks to me about a particular area of my life right now, but it also speaks to the larger situation where we all find ourselves, working from home and supervising children in an intensity of togetherness we could scarcely imagine a month ago. There is a meaning to be found in this time, an opportunity to be embraced.

This is my prayer for my family every morning and every night right now:

God, help us learn to love each other better.

More from Francis de Sales

Background photo by Laura Elfrink

When I went through my files looking for words of comfort the other day, I wasn’t sure whether to share this or not. There’s a lot to be anxious about right now, and I doubt any of us feels real inner peace. Yesterday we took a break from the Lenten sweets fast. I said, “You know, sometimes life hands you Lent, and when it does, you don’t need need to make it for yourself.”

Of course, we have no chocolate in the house to speak of, so we can’t just make cookies. But we pulled out the cake pops that have been in the freezer for a year or more, and they decimated the candy jar. All the Valentine’s candy is gone. (Before Easter!)

But that’s not really the point. The point I’m aiming for today is that a quote like this *can* do more harm than good, making us feel that if we aren’t able to live up to it, we are deep failures. I spoke to a counselor yesterday for the first time in my life. Once I cleared the anxiety that dogged me for years in young adulthood, I vowed that never again would I be too ashamed to seek help. And yet every time anxiety has reared its head in the past two decades, I’ve managed to work through it on my own in a few days or a couple weeks.

When it hit last week, I knew I’d outrun my ability to cope on my own. And with a stay-at-home order in place, I am well aware that I have to have my own emotional health if I hope to support that of my children.

So I stopped reading articles on the pandemic, and asked to be removed from an impassioned family email thread; I’m not watching the news; and most importantly, I called a counseling service available through my husband’s work.

One of the things he told me is that our emotions respond to the narrative we give them. Right now I’m focused on the deprivation–concerts, freedom, unfettered grocery store runs. But the reality is that what I still have far outweighs what has been taken from me. That’s why this quote speaks to me this morning. The whole world SEEMS upset, but it isn’t as upset as it feels. However imperfectly, however often I fail, I will work to refocus on what I have, rather than what I’ve (temporarily) lost.